December 1, 2023

LONDON – Annie Lawrence, 8, looked excited on Sunday afternoon. She wanted to see Tottenham Hotspur, the soccer team she supported, play their first game of the English Premier League season – but her joy wasn’t just due to the game ahead.

Lawrence was at OOF, a soccer art gallery that opened last month in a building attached to the club’s stadium gift shop. Some of the works on display seemed to make her as happy as a Tottenham win.

The opening show “Balls” by OOF (until November 21) shows 17 contemporary works of art made with or depicting soccer balls. There’s one made of concrete and one made of silicone that looks like it’s covered in nipples.

Lawrence pointed to a giant bronze ball from a deflated Marcus Harvey ball and said, “I would like this in my bedroom.” The artist said in a telephone interview that the work could conjure up anything from the decline of Britain as an imperial power to the end of childhood.

For Lawrence, however, the appeal was simpler: “It looks like you can sit in it, like on a couch,” she said.

Lawrence then took her father upstairs and saw a play called “The Longest Ball in the World” by French artist Laurent Perbos. “It looks like a sausage!” she said, grinning for photos in front of another piece showing a paper mache soccer ball spinning in a microwave.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic about the works on display. Below, Ron Iley, 71, was looking at Argentine artist Nicola Costantino’s nipple-covered ball. “Lots of rubbish,” he said, and then went out.

The worlds of art and football don’t necessarily mix. The most famous recent work, combining the two, is a bust of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese player who made headlines when it was unveiled in 2017 for not looking like him. Other pieces, such as Andy Warhol’s acrylic screen prints by Pelé, are little more than simple homages to great athletes.

Eddy Frankel, an art critic who founded OOF with gallery owners Jennie and Justin Hammond, said he wanted to show that art can be exciting, complex and thought-provoking about soccer, as soccer is called in the UK. “We use football to express ideas about society,” said Frankel. “If you want to talk about racism, bigotry, homophobia or about community and faith and passion: all of that is possible with football.”

Frankel said he used to hide his passion for football in the British art world because “you can’t really get away with being both”. That all changed one night in 2015 when he reported at Sotheby’s about an auction of a monumental painting by the German painter Gerhard Richter. The sale clashed with a game with Tottenham Hotspur, the club Frankel supports, so he started tracking the game on his phone. Soon about 15 people leaned forward behind him to take a look, he said.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, so there are people in the art world who are interested in football like I do,” said Frankel.

In 2018 he started OOF as a magazine that explored the intersections of his passions. “We thought we might get away with four problems,” he said. The magazine, which appears every six months, is now in its eighth issue.

Setting up a showroom seemed like the next logical step, Frankel said, adding that he originally planned to open it in a former kebab shop near Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which is about eight miles north of London’s traditional gallery districts. But when he and his partners reached out to the local council for help, they suggested contacting the club instead, which is a 19th-century townhouse.

Most of the work on display at OOF is for sale, valued at up to $ 120,000, but the gallery has a much higher footfall than most commercial galleries. More than 60,000 fans come to the stadium on match days, and on Sunday a few hundred spectators broke out of the crowd to look around, many in Tottenham Hotspur uniforms.

“We basically run a museum without a museum budget,” said Frankel.

A winking sign at the entrance asks visitors not to kick the art, but not everyone obeyed, Frankel said: On a recent visit, Ledley King, a former Tottenham Hotspur captain, gave “The Longest Ball in the World” “A light boot.

Pebros, the artist behind the work, laughed when he talked about the incident in a telephone interview. “Maybe he doesn’t go to a lot of galleries so he didn’t know,” he said.

The current squad, including its famous striker Harry Kane, has not yet been to the gallery, Frankel said. Players tried to keep social interactions to a minimum during the pandemic.

“Of course we’re a commercial gallery so it would be nice to sell some art,” said Frankel. “But the real success is we can get a lot of people through the door and get them into contemporary art that normally wouldn’t,” he added.

Many of the hundreds of visitors on Sunday fit in well. “If we’re honest, we don’t go to galleries,” says Hannah Barnato, 27, there with her partner. “But it’s interesting. It’s different, ”she said.

Sam Rabin, one of three guides in the gallery who walk fans through the works, said this was a common reaction. “I’ve never heard the phrase ‘it’s different’ as often as I work here,” he said.

But many visitors, especially children, showed a deep connection with the art on display, he said, adding that this proved that football and art are not the separate worlds they may appear. “They are both emotional experiences,” he said. “Both are rewarding experiences.”